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Courtesy of Mike Mesko

Courtesy of Mike Mesko

There were two interesting things about tying knots in fishing. First, there was the fact that it mattered whether you were left-handed or right-handed. If you were left-handed, I mean truly left-handed, you really needed to learn how to tie knots from a left-handed person. Why? Because it was all about the motion with the working end, the free end of the line. Like throwing a ball, there is a motion, a way you address the knot. If you are left-handed you hold the working end in your left hand and tie the knot with that hand. The motion becomes like a muscle memory. If you're right-handed, the motion is a right-handed motion. Seems simple, but I later worked on deck with a true left-handed guy who couldn't tie a single knot. No one he had ever fished with—and no one in his family for that matter—was left-handed and so no one had ever been able to teach him how to tie the simplest of knots.

Second, most fishing knots were not tightly tied. Over time, I learned that the mark of a true greenhorn, including myself, was to cinch up and yank on knots so they were tight and rock hard. On fishing boats, most knots at some point will need to be untied. There were exceptions, of course. The only knot that I ever saw anyone yank on—I mean stand on the line with their boot and pull up as hard as they could to tighten it—was the fisherman's knot used to join two lines. Once tied, it could never be untied. Lobster catchers used that knot every day to lengthen out pot warp, or when they had to cut apart snarls where they got tangled up in other people's gear, then re-attach the line. Most fishing knots were variants of regular knots with a kind of slipknot approach for easy untying. Instead of using the straight working end, the loose end of the line, most fisherman make a bight, a loop, with the working end and use that to tie the knot. The bight serves two purposes. Because it is bigger than the single working end, it makes the knot looser against the standing line. In other words, this doubled-up working end is harder to crush into a binding knot that is so tight it takes beating on it with a hammer to get it apart. The bight also gives you the ability to pull the knot apart faster when you're untying it. That's the slipknot aspect. In the last step of untying, you just pull the free end and pull out the bight.

I know that all seems a bit fussy, but it matters in fishing because most knots can come under terrific strain and you often need to get them apart to get yourself out of messes—and there are always messes—without necessarily resorting to “out knife and cut.” And all fishing gear is held together by knots and splices, whether it is the fundamental small knots in a net, that lace the mesh to a corkline or a leadline, a hawser used to hold a boat at a wharf, or a wire towing cable pulling two thousand pounds of dragging doors. Undoubtedly, the most useful knot ever invented is the bowline. No matter how much strain is put on the knot, you can always get it untied. On a regular basis, towing loaded dories behind a workboat, we would put a bowline in the line of the boat to be towed, and then tie another bowline through that bowline to join the two lines. Even after towing a dory loaded with two tons of mackerel, you could easily untie the two lines.

Read a sample of Door in Dark Water by P. D. Callahan